Unchanging Institutions and The Fate of Reform in Iran

The fate of reform in Iran is critically connected to both free elections and an independent judiciary. Although the Iranian regime has allowed a limited degree of freedom in the electoral process, its behavior and actions in the last few years can be characterized as the most blatant taken against the reform movement. Iranians have by and large participated in the elections when they have felt their participation could make a difference. In contrast to the relatively free previous elections, the situation changed rather dramatically with the municipal elections of February 2003 and especially with the parliamentary elections of February 2004. The electoral process became akin to elections without democracy when, in January 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified some 3,533 out of 8,144 prospective candidates, including some 80 incumbent Majles deputies. The result has been citizen dismay, cynicism and apathy. The regime’s behavior in these elections has, therefor, been a clear manifestation of authoritarian tendencies and a rejection by the state of evolutionary pro-reform agenda. The fear of reformers displacing the power-holders has resulted in systematic undermining of the already weakened parliament. There is a growing popular sentiment that normal political processes are too flawed to respond to legitimate constituency demands for participation in the system. A prominent culprit that has worked to undermine civil society in Iran -both in terms of electoral process and freedom of expression- is the Iranian judiciary that is under the direct control of the supreme leader and serves as the chief instrument of conservative control and domination. No institution has done more damage to reform and civil society in Iran than the judiciary. By use of its immense authority and power, it has created a system resembling "legal violence”-that is, extralegal and extra-administrative violence that emanates from the institutions of the state with full approval of those at the apex of power. The judiciary’s extra-legal power is further sustained by a system of laws and regulations that pay scant attention to procedural norms, the right to counsel, and other basic rights.

Farhad Kazem
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